(New York: World Editions, 2019)
Full disclosure: if you’re an MFA grad, like me, whose novelist credentials involve the unfortunate words self-published, you have to be demure, especially in certain artsy epicenters — Austin, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Reykjavik — if you choose to risk referring to yourself as a writer in a patch of garden-party small-talk, as the increasing number of small publishing houses makes it all the more likely that someone within earshot can make a legitimate claim to third-party validation. A touch cynical, a touch envious, I have found myself picking up one of these two-hundred or so page objects, holding it out at arm’s length, rotating it in the half-light coming through the kitchen window, musing about the proliferation of my arcane art of choice.
Recently I read two indie house efforts — Gary Barker’s The Museum of Lost Love and Michael Levitin’s Disposable Man — proper novels which demonstrate that it is relatively easy for human beings to build out an exposition, much harder to create forward momentum, and fantastically difficult indeed to bring a story home. The narrative of The Museum of Lost Love is structured around the romantic triangulations that interfere with two sets of couples. The love affair between Kaita and Goran fractures and expands, allowing each of them a benign romantic interlude before convivially reconsummating; the other between Tyler and Carla spins the other direction, first congealing in a moment of soulful restoration before the volatile ex-husband Steven enters the scene. And not that it much matters thematically, beyond underscoring an existential sense that we are all, regardless of our place as humans in the universe, randomly bumping into each other as we sort through the vagaries of love and life in one way or another, but Kaita is Tyler’s therapist.
The novel’s other main structural feature is a collection of “Museum Submissions” interspersed between the chapters — short lyrical vignettes accounting for all manner of love tragedies that have been dispatched from cities up and down the Americas, and from Congo, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Marseille, an air force base in Afghanistan, which collectively prove love can be lost anywhere, any time. Barker distinguishes these fragments from the narrative chapters by capping them with a place/time stamp, rendering them in a different font, and not honoring the convention of placing quotation marks around the dialogue. These for me are the best parts of the novel, though they tend to cool the emotional temperature, which already has a tough time bringing the narrative up to a simmer, as the consequence of the events on the characters’ psychologies is often implied rather than shown. For example, take the most dramatic moment of the novel: “There were two shots in rapid succession, followed by a pause and then one more shot,” meaning, we surmise, that Steven shot Carla twice before turning the gun on himself, as they always say in the television news reports of these events. It’s not that we’re disoriented here, but this is one of many instances in the novel where the strategy to create suspense is merely not telling the reader what happened. Joaquin, Carla and Steven’s five-year-old son, is in the room, and we don’t know how Tyler behaved relative to him after the murder-suicide of his parents, which is made more confusing as Tyler proves to be unusually nurturing. He adopts Joaquin, pairing him with his own five-year-old son delivered to him upon his return from Afghanistan by a woman who then disappears from the novel and his life forever. This feels like the start of a story I want to read. How would a single father war vet with a big heart handle this fucked up mess?
The Museum of Lost Love recalled to mind Disposable Man, a book sent to me by the author Michael Levitin around a year ago, partly because they both have an America-Europe displacement motif. The most compelling setting of The Museum of Lost Love is Sarajevo, which, like all great war-torn capitals embodies our worst and best inclinations — the desire to destroy, the impulse to then put it all back together, making it a good metonym for the concept of human romance. Disposable Man is largely set in Berlin — powered by German will a city reconstituted with a new Reichstag, tech start-ups, mythical sex clubs — a compelling canvas on which to paint the colors of the new social palette. I really liked the Berlin content, which captures the ethos of the post-GDR Prenzlauer Berg, where the cis-hetero male is “sadly indistinguishable from the cadre of gay men who surround him.” What, the book asks, to do with all that unspent testosterone, however meager it may now be? The answer for the protagonist Max Krumm is a bike ride with his bro mates to Poland, and when this doesn’t quite do the trick, a solo train trek up to Lithuania, turning the narrative in its final movement into a road novel.
Max’s character channels the vibe of Sal Paradise, who at the end of Kerouac’s classic is found sitting on a broken-down river pier contemplating “all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast” and “Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found” — Max’s journey, conversely, pausing in an earthen fort cum concentration camp cum burial ground in a patch of moist Balkan farmland. The scene asks the reader to make meaning from the mounting abstractions, such as the attachment between Max and Vitalya, an administrator in the Kovno KGB archive, a woman with rheumatic hips with whom he has sex on the soil of that fort, beneath which are the ashes of his ancestors — and then when they wake up in the cold morning covered in dew, Max has a syntactically inscrutable epiphany: “there was nothing I could say to her or ever wanted more for I had my balls back.” He has regained, or perhaps achieved for the first time, his masculine agency, making him post-verbal and filled with wanting? When we become conscious of language operating like this, we are reminded that novels are made things, which ironically challenges the sense that what’s on the page is the story, our thoughts and feelings released to dance and dally how and where they may.
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Trevor Payne teaches English at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia.